Review: Marlborough

Marlborough
Marlborough by Angus Konstam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like the Osprey Command’s concise take on describing everything important. It works well, even ignoring some of the detail that has been lost, to give a broad overview. Having read Chandler’s ‘Marlborough as a Military Commander‘ before, not much here came as a surprise but rather renewed my memory in useful ways.

I also enjoy the biographies of the opposing generals as Osprey produces them. I think quite a few regular narrative biographies forget that bit, and it’s a relief Osprey insists on it. At the same time, the diplomatic aspect of Marlborough is mostly ignored here but one must accept that Osprey is a military history publishing house.

And, lastly, it was reading about Marlborough, remembering back to my visit of the Blenheim Palace, and the gracious feeling of the nation one can sense on that site. Perhaps Marlborough did not quite save Britain but he humbled France and saved the Dutch from a defeat they would have encountered under most different leaders. As a quick introduction, well worth it.

My only other major comment is that though in works on Marlborough the Lines of Ne Plus Ultra (though if I remember right, Chandler named them Non Plus Ultra) are mentioned, no one actually describes this system of fortifications in detail. I feel, for a place with such an imposing name, that is a pity.

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Review: The Last 60 Minutes

The Last 60 Minutes
The Last 60 Minutes by David McCrae
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I am happy that one of the first chapters of this book notes the following: ‘I would think nothing of polishing off half a bottle of rum while watching a film.’ I am happy because I thought nothing of polishing off half a bottle of a delightful herb liqueur to help me through this book. No task half-done, no job half-finished.

Now, to begin with: Please, anyone out there, don’t hire anyone else as your “life coach”. These things do not exist. Life is the coach if anyone is, and to pretend that someone else can tell you what will be valuable in your life is as bad a gamble than the Athenians took at Syracuse. Could have gone either way, you say? That’s true, but it went south. Deep south.

If you want to feel happier or more pensive, read Kahlil Gibran or Muhammad Iqbal or Hermann Hesse. Read something, listen to someone, watch a new film. But when I say read something, I possibly mean something other than this book, and I will outline a few reasons below.

Firstly, books like this suffer greatly for getting their facts wrong, like the comment on Churchill being elected Prime Minister in ’40. If we’re meant to be helping ourselves, how about the author taking the time to help himself craft a credible argument and not a soundbite?

Next, I was slightly uneasy after the author mentioned that he thinks the Sun rises to bring light into his life. I mean, it might. But also, it might not. I think the latter is a bit more likely, perhaps because of a) those seven billion people the author also mentions in the book, but, more likely, b) as it has done it for hundreds of millions of years and will keep on doing so for hundreds of millions of years (unless we as the “extremely capable” humans do something very clever).

And… I mean… Goodness… The author also entirely misunderstood Tolkien’s creation. Elves, “immortal and perfect”? I wonder what the poor souls who died in the Kinslayings thought of that. Or, of their best and most wonderful being the only one of their kind to actually die? Not to mention that the Valar also created the Dwarves, Ents, Trolls, Orcs, etc, but I guess these didn’t fit into the picture the author was trying to get across here. “Immortal and perfect” or “mortal and imperfect”. It’s never that easy, mate.

At least I created something with this review, and in light of the author’s words in the book, that’s the most important thing I could have done today. Isn’t that just dandy?

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Review: You and Your Research

You and Your Research
You and Your Research by Richard Hamming
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I happened onto this by a chance link from Mr Tyler Cowen, and I have to say I’m very happy I did.

This little gem of a text is littered with worthwhile thoughts and good suggestions on how to improve on one’s research — but there is absolutely no reason why the same cannot be applied in any other fields. It’s the meaning behind Mr Hamming’s words here rather than the topical application of them which is more important. He also highlights a number of very good practices along with a lot of (fun) anecdotal history that illustrates his points so much better than a drier delivery might have.

I would absolutely recommend this to everyone.

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‘Bismarck: A Life’, J. Steinberg

I started this biography of Bismarck a very long time ago. I finished it today. It has probably taken me a year and a half to finish it, but that is only because I mainly read it when I had nothing else going on book-wise. Admittedly, the style of the book is rather heavy but in many ways I think that is the way Bismarck needs to be described. It would be difficult to carry the serious aspect of the man who governed so much for so long in lighter tones.

Mr Steinberg brings to life this man who served three Emperors of Germany, created the Empire, and who was still willing to dispose of it just to retain power for a longer period of time. In his mind, in the mind of the Prince Bismarck, power was everything and disobedience was not allowed. He was the state, and the state was him. Only… it was not. The state was the Emperor.

Wilhelm I and his relationship with the Minister-President and Chancellor is touched upon in considerable length in this work, and I have to say I am surprised by the amount of manipulation that went on. Alongside that, one has to keep in mind that the Queen/Empress Augusta had her wishes and plans, and the Crown Prince and Princess their own as well. The court of the Hohenzollern was an interesting place, but the presence of Bismarck made it very different to what it would have been otherwise.

The author, in a number of different places, remarks upon the extraordinary good luck of Bismarck to have served Wilhelm, and for Wilhelm to have lived to such an old age. The hint is very clear — Wilhelm was the King/Emperor that Bismarck could serve, for his moods and wishes would not work as well against either Friedrich III or Wilhelm II.

Now comes the time in which I have to lament that the book takes the general English approach and uses William instead of Wilhelm and Frederick instead of Friedrich. Yet, other German names are retained in their original forms. This can lead to some confusion, and I would generally prefer the original to be kept throughout. Or it might be that I am confused now…

Back to the book : Following Bismarck’s life from the early days, a very different aristocrat to what I originally thought he was revealed himself. The photo we generally see and picture of the man is one of military bearing and dignity. I was surprised to learn how manufactured that image was, and how Bismarck avoided military service. I am appalled at how Bismarck treated his friends and allies. But, I still think I understand him. He had one wish, and that wish was power.

This book brings out what a man’s wish for power can mean. The extents to which the Prince would descend or ascend only to maintain his own hold on power are staggering. And, yet, it is a story of others alongside the Iron Chancellor — others such as the notable Liberals Ludwig Windthorst and Eduard Lasker. Indeed, I think that the story that bears telling alongside that of Bismarck is that of Windthorst who managed to outmaneuver the cunning Chancellor on a number of occasions.

And, yet, this book did not set out to describe the others. It set out to tell us a story of a man who ruled, and to tell this story without unnecessary embellishments. I believe it is the truth as close to it as we can so long afterwards when we read the words on this Prince of Germany, who wished himself to be simply known as

‘A faithful German servant of Kaiser Wilhelm I’

‘J. Edgar’

John Edgar Hoover seems to have been a very interesting man — he more or less created the Federal Bureau of Investigation along with its criminal science methodology as well as the administrative processes. However, the man also had a different side: one of craving power and one ready to go to all lengths to keep himself in the top. For Mr Hoover, there was nothing else except the top.

Clint Eastwood’s movie, ‘J. Edgar’, wishes to bring light to this man, and I would say he succeeds quite well. Throughout the movie, we are introduced to a young J. Edgar who is building the Bureau while being kept in the loop of the story by the old J. Edgar — with the old man juggling Presidents and Attorney Generals to keep himself at his ‘meant’ position.

What I maybe appreciated most in the entire movie was the scene near the end where Clyde Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover were talking about the book that the Director recited for the majority of the film. That scene is a perfect introduction to the question of what is truth and how we find it, and it serves as a warning to anything we may learn from others: for inevitably there has been some sort of bias in the story and it can be quite difficult in trying to figure out where that bias lies.

I am also quite taken in by the way ‘loyalty’ was portrayed in this movie. Nearly any action could be taken as a betrayal by the man in charge, so how would truthfulness and honesty be known? Can we even talk of loyalty in a situation like this? It would seem to me that a man who is as J. Edgar was portrayed in the movie would have a few really good friends — and in these his trust would be unlimited. And, yet, that is not quite what we see: at different points he still mistrusts everyone around himself, and I think that to be a refreshing look.

For it is a look of fear. With nothing set in stone, everything can change at the press of one button or the mention of one word. It is not often that the main character is both as strong and as paranoid as the one we have in this movie, and I think that makes for a very positive difference when watching ‘J. Edgar’.

‘Diamond Queen’, A. Marr

“Showing true phlegm, a policemen observed to the Queen that it had been ‘a magnificent piece of bombing, if I may say so, Ma’am’.”
— Marr, Andrew (2011-10-21). The Diamond Queen (Kindle Locations 1361-1362). Macmillan Publishers UK. Kindle Edition.

I find that the name of Andrew Marr is far more connected to television than to writing books, and that has been the case in my mind for a longer period of time due to his ‘History of the World’ and ‘Andrew Marr Show’. Yet, he is foremost a historian so I took up the journey of ‘The Diamond Queen’ with hope in my mind.

Now, to begin with, I do not think that there is a question on the following : Mr Marr is an excellent storyteller by most assessable criteria, but when it comes to writing a book I think his skill-set has left him (or rather, that he has left his writing skills behind). This is not at all to mean that ‘The Diamond Queen’ did not make for an interesting read or that it lacked in some essential quality (unless you maybe make “bookishness” a quality and have works abide by that), but it does mean that this book comes with a set of values one should be warned against.

To not bring any harm on the content of the book, I will be the first to say that a lot of what I read here was very interesting and even if found elsewhere then Elizabeth deserved this book. The stories of the coronation and the jubilees as well as the tale of the Royal Yacht were all well written and put into a grand scheme. The story of the Queen of Tonga waving at people in the rain from the Coronation is an excellent example of this kind of detail that has been attributed in organising this volume.

However, at every moment when I was reading this historical work, I had the feeling that Mr Marr envisioned it as a TV show: that it would be his voice reading it out, and, by god, if someone missed a word or two that he had set into the script! That is not quite how a book should sound to me. The tone of the author being present in a very patronizing way throughout the book is not an endearing quality.

And that is the reason why I wish that Mr Marr had reigned in his own autocratic sense of ‘best’ and ‘worst’ and told the stories as they are. He could have done just as good a job, and with far less subtext — overall, the result would have been better and more thorough, and I think the reader would be more pleased. And, yet, it was not to be…

“…and it was one of those rare moments of optimism. And the Queen looked terrific. She was beautiful, and she had this dashing consort . . . and it was going to get better.”
— Marr, Andrew (2011-10-21). The Diamond Queen (Kindle Locations 2019-2020). Macmillan Publishers UK. Kindle Edition.

‘Radetzky’, A. Sked

“That you will make no deliberate blunders, your character guarantees; if you make the usual ones, well I have long become used to them.”
— The Emperor Francis I on appointing Joseph Radetzky to the position of Chief of General Staff

The full title of this book reads as ‘Radetzky. Imperial Victor and Military Genius’ and after reading this piece I have to agree with the opinion of the author, Alan Sked, on many issues. Many but not all, for at one moment he makes the bold statement that the Marshal Radetzky was a greater commander than Marlborough. While this might be true, I would need to look into this far more, while I am more forgiving in granting him the correctness of opinion when asserting that the Marshal outclassed Napoleon Bonaparte along with every other man of his own day, and probably the majority of the soldiers of the previous century.

So, who was Radetzky? Well, the answer to this I knew a while ago, when I had not heard of this book nor of Alan Sked. This answer would read: Radetzky was a man who was great enough to have a march written about him. This for me was quite sufficient for indeed the Radetzky March is a brilliant composition, as I see it.

However, that was not really an answer to who the man himself was, so when I saw this book on one good day on a shelf in Waterstones I knew I had to read it. It was until yesterday waiting for me to finish a biography of von Bismarck, when for some reason I decided to pick the book up and nearly read it in one go.

Compellingly written, I believe Mr Sked to do justice to the Field Marshal for the victories gained at Leipzig, Custoza, and Novara, and the plans leading up to these do indeed allow us to consider Joseph Radetzky as a most brilliant military mind. I was also intrigued by the statement that the Field Marshal was one of the few people in the relatively peaceful decades after Napoleon’s Hundred Days to insist on military innovation, bringing Austria to a rather high position (especially compared to where it would end up by the Great War).

Overall… now I know why Johann Strauss wrote such a masterful piece of music, and I know that the man it was meant to celebrate went far further in the minds of his contemporaries than history would give him credit for.

“If I had an army of 700,000 and Radetzky only four men and a corporal, I would not attack Lombardy.”